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Three things Congress should do now to protect kids and teens

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
In this April 9, 2020, photo, Lila Nelson watches as her son, sixth-grader Jayden Amacker, watch es an online class at their home in San Francisco. The pandemic increased the amount of time kids and teens spend online, but some worry about the effects of media and technology on their outlook.

With the start of the lame-duck session, Congress has a long to-do list in a short period of time. Among the important items that need immediate attention, Congress should not go home without making the internet a safer and healthier place for kids and teens.

To their credit, committees in both the House and the Senate have dedicated time and energy to online privacy, health and safety over the past two years. There have been hearings and bipartisan markups, and the 117th Congress has gotten closer to passing comprehensive privacy legislation than any other. Still, Congress appears stuck when it comes to establishing guardrails for social media platforms. 

If Congress cannot achieve a comprehensive agreement to make the internet safer for children and other key constituencies this year, it should — at a minimum — call up and pass three bipartisan bills that benefit the mental and physical health of kids and teens: the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA 2.0), the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), and the Children and Media Research Advancement Act (CAMRA).

Our nation’s youth face a mental health crisis. There are many factors behind it, but it is increasingly clear that technology — in particular, the widespread and frequent use of digital media and technology by children and teens, the way that social media platforms are designed and operated, and the extent to which data about children and youth are collected, shared and manipulated — is a significant contributor to the youth mental health crisis.  

Taken together, COPPA 2.0 and KOSA provide important online protections that address data privacy and harmful design. Online platforms have become so powerful because of the millions of data points they collect on users, which they use to hyper-target individuals to maximize engagement and profits. Kids and teens are particularly vulnerable to being manipulated by this targeting because their brains are still developing. 

This makes privacy legislation such as COPPA 2.0 an essential step to protecting young users online. The bill not only updates the nearly 25-year-old children’s privacy law but also expands protections to teens under 17, limits the amount of data companies can collect from kids and teens, and bans targeted advertising to kids under 13.  

KOSA, meanwhile, requires companies to design their platforms with young people’s health and well-being in mind, imposing a duty of care on covered online platforms to take action when their platforms are harming young users — such as when their algorithms amplify harmful content promoting eating disorders, self-harm or suicidal ideation. 

There is one more thing Congress can do to help kids and their families: establish a better understanding of the positive and negative impacts of digital media and technology use on children’s health.

This summer, the House passed the CAMRA Act to fund the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create a first-of-its-kind longitudinal research program to study the developmental impacts of technology and digital media use on children, infants, and adolescents. 

Since the start of the pandemic, media use has grown faster than it did over the four years prior to the pandemic. Of course, some of that growth was for good reason: technology and media allowed for online instruction during the pandemic, which played a vital role in enhancing student learning and engagement at home. Yet we still don’t know enough about the impact of that media and technology use.

We need the research the CAMRA Act would authorize to inform and equip parents, educators, and policymakers about choices regarding children’s media usage at home and in the classroom, to identify trends in how young people are impacted by the technology and media they use, and to prepare for the next generation of technology and media, such as virtual reality and the metaverse.

The clock is ticking on the youth mental health crisis in this country. If there is a chance to negotiate and pass a strong, comprehensive privacy bill, we are all for it. But no matter what Congress does, it should not abandon children’s well-being by failing to act on kids’ online safety this year. COPPA 2.0, KOSA and CAMRA are gift-wrapped for Congress to score a huge win for kids and their families. Let’s not let them down. 

James P. Steyer is founding CEO of Common Sense Media, a nonpartisan organization that reviews and provides ratings for media and technology. Follow on Twitter @jimsteyer.

Tags Children's Online Privacy Protection Act internet use online harassment youth mental health

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